A Sonoma County judge has rejected the lawsuit filed by the city and a coalition of community groups to block a new asphalt plant near Shollenberger Park, dealing a resounding blow to the six-year long effort to stop the project.
“We are very disappointed by Judge (Rene) Chouteau's failure to find in favor of our community coalition¹s legal challenge to protect Shollenberger Park, the Petaluma River and our community's health and economy,” said Joan Cooper, president of Friends of Shollenberger, one of the plaintiffs, in an issued statement.
“Judge Chouteau has rejected our plea to preserve the gateway to Sonoma County from blight and protect the people of Petaluma from Dutra's industrial pollution.”
In a written opinion released a day before Christmas and totaling more than 30 pages, Judge Chouteau dismissed all arguments presented by the plaintiffs, including that Dutra's facility, that would include two 62 foot storage towers and churn out 225,000 tons of asphalt a year, would increase traffic, noise and air pollution. (See the full opinion in attachments on the right)
Mayor Dave Glass said he was dismayed at the ruling, but not sorry the city and local organizations challenged the project in court.
"The majority of people in District 2 aren’t going to be happy when this thing gets built," Glass said. "The board of supervisors and the planning commission let this community down tremendously."
However, Glass said that many changes aimed at curbing the plant's impact were added as a direct result of the hard work done by the city and many volunteers.
"To me, this emphasizes the importance of voters seeking out the values of the folks they elect," Glass said.
In his written opinion, Judge Chouteau dismissed all 11 arguments presented by plaintiffs, including allegations that the project was improperly noticed, had been altered and did not give the public enough time to review new documents.
On the issue of traffic:
Judge Chouteau wrote that “although a staff report noted that there would be a possible new significant impact from increased truck traffic, it determined that the proposed mitigation measure, a new traffic signal, would be more than sufficient to keep the impact less than significant.”
On air pollution:
Chouteau said that there was no evidence there will be increased air pollution from trucks traveling to and from the facility, located just off the Petaluma Boulevard South exit.
With regard to air pollution from barges moving materials down the Petaluma River, Chouteau noted that the Shamrock dock, the Landing Way Depot, already operates under a permit that allows up to 768,000 tons a year to be transported and that the new asphalt plant would not increase that amount.
Plaintiffs raised concerns that the conveyor that will move aggregate from the Dutra facility through Shamrock and onto barges will cause significant noise pollution.
But Chouteau said his assessment of the Environmental Impact Report was that it would not exceed County General Plan Performance Standards on noise, and thus “not cause any significant impacts.” In addition, noise from falling aggregate was found to be “lower than existing ambient noise.”
On the issue of Wetlands Destruction:
As part of the suit, plaintiffs had argued that a conveyor through a wetlands mitigation area would destroy or negatively impact the sensitive ecology of the wetlands. But Judge Chouteau said that the Shamrock wetland is a “poor-quality wetland site on former industrial land with old dredge spoils and dominated by non-native plants.”
He added that the construction of a conveyor, built on piers, will physically impair only a small portion of that wetland leaving most of it unchanged and that the wetland credits purchased at a “wetland bank” will be better-quality wetland adjacent to the same waterway.
Alleged Brown Act violations:
Plaintiffs had argued that the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors violated the Brown Act by not allowing the public to speak at the Dec. 14, 2010 meeting when the deciding vote was cast. However, Judge Chouteau said that the public had been allowed to speak on the topic during the October 12 hearing and the board was not required to take further testimony.
The Brown Act, which governs the meetings of public bodies such as City Council and the Board of Supervisors, specifies that meetings must be noticed at least three days in advance and that the public to address the board on any issue not previously discussed.
A message left for Dutra Materials was not immediately returned Wednesday morning.
The plaintiffs are now considering an appeal of the ruling and say the decision is a slap in the face of Petaluma's most popular park that offers 500 acres of wetlands and some 200 species of birds.
“Our attorneys feel we have many legal issues that could find merit at a higher court,” the group said in a statement. “The community's efforts to save Shollenberger Park, our river, Petaluma's health and economic vitality are not over yet. Our city, community and extended family have supported these battles for several years, and will not give up now.”
What do you think about the judge's decision? Should the city and the coalition of nonprofits file an appeal? Sound off in the comments below.